Nathaniel Mackey
(USA, 1947)   
Nathaniel Mackey

Born in Miami and raised in Southern California, Nathaniel Mackey is a poet, novelist, editor and critic. He cites poets William Carlos Williams and Amiri Baraka, in addition to jazz musicians John Coltrane and Don Cherry, as early influences in his exploration of how language can be infused and informed by music. In a 2006 interview with Bill Forman for MetroActive magazine, Mackey addressed the relationship he seeks between music and his own poetry: “I try to cultivate the music of language, which is not just sounds. It’s also meaning and implication. It’s also nuance. It’s also a kind of angular suggestion.”

In a brief piece at Coldfront on Mackey’s latest book, Nod House, John Deming writes:

Mackey’s world is rarely visual; it is heard and felt, like pulse, progressing intuitively and musically. He regularly uses epigraphs from great thinkers, but eagerly avoids philosophical conclusions, always favoring an open turn into the next phrase or phase, imparting the vivid, dreamlike space between thought and action (including thought and speech) . . . He questions the notion that language can accurately communicate thought or imagination while proving through his own language that it can, if only in the way that music can, or that the ever-adjusting spiral arms of a galaxy can.

The musical and “ever-adjusting” is highly present in Mackey’s serial poems “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “mu,” and both can be seen in this passage from “Song of the Andoumboulou: 136”:

                                 A low trombone could
    be heard asking, “What have they done to
my beautiful boy?” A tree limb cracked in
      distance, the all-of-us the horns had be-
  come. All of us there to notice, all of us there
    to see, “Blue Train” our wounded anthem,
hacked wood the woods we walked . . .    I was
    agining Sophia’s dreamt-about blue truck,
      dreamt arrival, Trane’s loud announcement
  a blur, train truck, wished-for congress come
    There was the sun’s late equation, the moon’s
ludic blush, truck equaling train equaling train
  equaling truck, soon’s blue transport, soon
come . . .    It was the muse’s blue lips the all-of-
    us the horns had become came thru, blue
  rebuked kiss, blue-blent reconnoiter. It was
     muse’s gray canopy covered us, the we I’d
  otherwise be the trees fell free of, cries loud
    and low we’d have heard had we been there,
wood equaling would equaling we . . .    

Here, music is the literal music of trombones, horns and the cracking of a tree limb, and also the music of Mackey's words. Lines are sometimes heavy with alliteration, as in “'Blue Train’ our wounded anthem, / hacked wood the woods we walked . . . I was” or with assonance: “soon’s blue transport, soon / soon / come . . . It was the muse’s blue lips.”

Don Share, prefacing portfolio of Mackey’s work that appeared in Poetry magazine in celebration of Mackey being honored with a Ruth Lilly Award, writes:

Song of the Andoumboulou addresses and gives voice to the progenitor spirits of the Dogon people of West Africa; it’s both a funereal song and a song of rebirth – a song of longing sung to people who no longer exist. . . . The other series, mu, weaves together the titles of two albums of improvisational music by jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and the Greek word muthos  which means speech, story, fable – and also indicates a lost Atlantis-like continent thought to have existed in the Pacific Ocean. It’s also a word that Olson absorbed from Jane Harrison, the great writer on mythology, who seems to have traced it back to the very first human utterance: Mu!

Although these poems function as a series, Publisher’s Weekly noted that it is not necessary to have read the series from the beginning to immerse oneself in Nod House (or Mackey’s other works), and indeed language helps guide readers through the slipperiness of the “ever-adjusting” and tidal landscape. Movement is not linear here, as one might guess from the shape of Mackey’s twisting stanzas, and as is figured in these lines further in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 136”:

  Zeno and Zenette’s last anything. Zeno and
    Zenette’s last kiss. I saw them come back
from afar, saw them bisect every step. Friend
    familiar, affine, foe, they walked in smelling
      of salt, the reek of  Lone Coast on their hair,
  their skin, sand a kind of coat they wore . . .
      thing I saw it seemed I dreamt I saw, some-
  thing seen exteriority reneged on, stand up wide
    awake though I did. Did I see what I saw I
      dered, the closer the coast was the less I felt
  located, water opening out onto everywhere,
    was what I saw what I saw I wanted to know . . .    

Crystal Curry, reviewing Splay Anthem for Octopus Magazine, noted that these poems are not only an epic journey but also a “zig-zagged jaunt, distance being irrelevant and place being ever un-fixed, ever collapsing in on itself. There is little in the way of a crystallized path, as each moment is a part of another moment.” Although Mackey’s work is epic, imaginative and even mystical, it is also of this world, filled with the echoes and shadows of America’s past and present, as these lines from “As If It Were ‘This Is Our Music’” show:

                                       The Freedmen’s Debate
    Society our name now was, the Ox Tongue
Speaker Exchange. Fractal scratch. Nominative
  ration. Cutaway run, cutaway arrest . . . Thus was
    our music no music I did say, say’s default on
sing such as it was . . . We called it history even
    insisted it, the it crowding the corner of eve-
ryone’s eye. None of us were not crept up on,
  none not required we sing it, say it. Thus was
  say not

As Curry writes, “Mackey takes us through a ghost history – our history.”

Mackey earned his BA from Princeton University and his PhD from Stanford University. Mackey has broadcast jazz and world music as a DJ on local noncommercial radio since the late 1970s. His many honors and awards include fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts; the Roy Harvey Pearce/Archive for New Poetry Prize; and the Stephen Henderson Award from the African American Literature and Culture Society. From 2001 to 2007, he served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Mackey taught for many years at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is currently the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University.



Septet for the End of Time, Boneset, Santa Cruz, 1983
Eroding Witness, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1985
Outlantish, Chax Press, Tucson, 1992
School of Udhra, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1993
Song of the Andoumboulou: 18-20, Moving Parts Press, Santa Cruz, 1994
Whatsaid Serif, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1998
Splay Anthem, New Directions, New York, 2006
Nod House, New Directions, New York, 2011
Blue Fasa (forthcoming) New Directions, New York, 2015

Bedouin Hornbook, University of Kentucky, 1986
Djbot Baghostus’s Run, Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1993
Atet A. D., City Lights Books, New York, 2001
Bass Cathedral, New Directions, New York, 2008
From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Volumes 1-3, New Directions, New York, 2010

Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose, Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 1993 (with Art Lange)
Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1993
Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2004

American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Library of America, New York, 2000, (editor, with Carolyn Kizer, John Hollander, Robert Hass and Marjorie Perloff)

Poetry magazine: “Destination Out” by Nathaniel Mackey “Sight-Specific, Sound-Specific . . .” by Nathaniel Mackey
Poetry magazine: “Eight Takes: Muldoon, Wright, Mackey, Levine, Jackson, Hecht, Barnes” by Brian Phillips
Poetry magazine: “Lines of Affinity: On Nathaniel Mackey, Winner of the 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize” by Don Share “Epic World: Ruth Lilly Prize Winner Nathaniel Mackey speaks about his poetry of process” by Joseph Donahue
Poetry Off the Shelf: 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize Winner: Nathaniel Mackey
Poem of the Day: “Day After Day of the Dead” by Nathaniel Mackey
Poem of the Day: “Ghost of a Trance” by Nathaniel Mackey
Poem of the Day: “On Antiphon Island” by Nathaniel Mackey
Poem of the Day: “Song of the Andoumboulou: 55” by Nathaniel Mackey
Duke Chronicle: Q&A with Nathaniel Mackey by Connor Southard
Coldfront: Top 30 Poetry Books of 2011, with John Deming on Nod House
Publisher’s Weekly: Review of Nod House
Octopus Magazine: Review of Splay Anthem by Crystal Curry


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